Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The answer lies in who gets to define it.
When Tesla unveiled its new lower-priced, battery-powered Model 3 vehicle last week, it received almost unanimous, effusive praise. “The most important vehicle of the century,” raved Motor Trend, which nabbed a drive of the four-door sedan.
But economist and Bloomberg columnist Tyler Cowen mostly gave it a yawn: “The New Tesla Is Great,” reads his headline. “But It Isn't Progress.”
Cowen wrote that those wowed by Tesla’s latest are perhaps too easily impressed, and the bar for what constitutes genuine, game-changing progress is too low. The new Tesla 3, he argued, is a prime example of what he calls “defensive innovation”—meaning the kind that’s “focused on solving problems rather than creating something new,” which he finds problematic.
The need for defensive innovation suggests that many observers overrate the true pace of technological progress. Too many exciting headlines are about cleaning up previous messes, and often those are messes we have made ourselves. Repair work is necessary, but it’s preventing a step backward rather than paving the way for higher living standards on a sustainable basis.
Cowen doesn’t really explain what he considers “higher living standards” so we are left to speculate. But it’s worth exploring Cowen’s column for an understanding of how living standards are created, how “progress” is defined, and for whom.
What if problem-solving only makes for a lowly “defensive innovation” designation, as Cowen suggests? For people of color and women who historically have carried the brunt of the world’s problems, defensive innovation is the only innovation that’s welcome. It’s hard for me, as an African American, to even fathom what innovation outside of the problem-solving context would mean. Perhaps it’s something more in the range of common-folk getting to travel to space—which, of course, is one of Tesla founder Elon Musk’s other obsessions. But
That Tribe Called Quest song swipes directly at the notion of vanity-innovation, particularly when Jarobi says, “They planning for our future, people; none of our people involved.” Sentiments like that circulate widely in non-white spaces, from the barbershop to the block: Ideas like space travel are for white, wealthy people who are trying to get as far away from the rest of us as they can—leaving people of color behind on a planet ravaged by The Rich Men’s hubris.
Because that scenario seems like a real possibility, a car that doesn’t need fossil fuel to run does feel like a game-changer, contrary to Cowen’s argument. Even when accounting for the environmental impacts of manufacturing a Tesla and running it on electricity from a coal-fired grid, its zero-emissions feature still counts as progress, given it will help reduce both future climate impacts and localized pollution from urban traffic, which disproportionately affect communities of color.
Also, by lowering the price point of the Model 3 some $30,000 below Tesla’s other electric vehicles, it makes it possible for more car owners to switch from fossil-fuel-fueled cars to those running on renewable energy. And, thinking beyond the Model 3 itself, the company’s open-source model makes the technology available to green public transit and interstate shipping, via the electric semi trucks and buses that Elon Musk has promised
So even by Cowen’s standard, it seems that making a dope car of the future more accessible and affordable while helping clean the environment does actually heighten living standards. It is but one example of why “defensive innovation” is a necessary mode that innovators should be operating within.
Nonetheless, Cowen may be onto something—just not for the reason he articulates. Tesla’s new car might be a game changer in the fight against climate change and urban smog, but if the company is not also improving the living standards of people of color and women in terms of wealth and equity, then, well, yes, it’s just a new car.
Employment and wage disparities by race and gender have never been equitable in any sector of America. When black women no longer have to work a year-and-half to earn what white men make in one year, then we can talk about progress. Specifically, both the renewable energy and the energy efficiency workforces are far less diverse than the general workforce in terms of employing people who aren’t white and who aren’t men, as the Department of Energy reports:
Nor have the new clean-green energy industries done much to decrease the enormous racial wealth gap, with African Americans still lagging far behind whites even when accounting for education and marital status. It’s difficult to ascertain where Tesla falls here, because the company won’t divulge its demographics. The company has also not avoided the culture of sexual harassment that seems to pervade the tech sector.
The climate and environmental justice components of Tesla’s new offerings are critical, but incomplete if women and people of color can’t or don’t get the jobs, or the wealth created from these climate solutions. As Malcolm X once quipped: “You don't stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”
This has been the classic tension between technology and race since the beginning of America. With every major technological advance, women and people of color end up fighting their way out of becoming stuck as the human fuel, if not also the waste product, of said advances. It was the technological game-changer of cheaper, mass-produced firearms that drove indigenous people out of their native homes, and forced Africans on to this continent as enslaved, chattel laborers. The cotton gin was also a major technological innovation, and it only accelerated slavery. Great technological advances of the mid-20th century displaced millions of white and African-American factory workers, but it was the black laborers who were then left stranded and overpacked in cities that didn’t want them there in the first place.
As Anthony Walton wrote for The Atlantic in 1999:
Yet another aspect of technology's great cost to blacks should be considered: while the Gilded Age roared through the last part of the nineteenth century and Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and others made the first great American fortunes as they wired, tracked, and fueled the new industrial society, blacks were mired in Reconstruction and its successor, Jim Crow. This circumscription limited their life prospects and, worse, those of their descendants. As the great American technopolis was built, with its avatars from Thomas Edison to Alfred P. Sloan to Bill Gates, blacks were locked out, politically and socially—and they have found it difficult to work their way in.
The same still holds true today, almost 20 years later, when the tech sector still can’t crack the diversity and equity code. If Tesla isn’t working to recover and redistribute the wealth African Americans have lost as a consequence of all those great tech “advances” then yeah, I’m with Tyler Cowen: Meh. But innovation for the sake of innovation is simply something that the historically trampled-over can’t afford. There are too many things that still need to be repaired. Who gets to define progress and innovation is one of those things.